Ken v Oona v Boris – and why Labour still doesn’t get it

Dear London Labour Party member,

Hello! Remember me? I was one of those people who used to vote for you lot once. Actually, I’m surprised you’re still going after your party took us into an illegal war, and completely buggered up the economy. But even a misery like me knows you’re not going to go away. Like faded Catholics at Christmas, us vaguely-lefty types have to pause occasionally and see what you’re up to.

So it’s with some concern that I read your shortlist for the 2012 London mayoral election. Let me see now – Ken Livingstone, Oona King, a bloke in north London, and an artist. Is that the best you can do? With all your councillors, MPs, and local party members – is that it?

I like Ken. I’d happily vote for Ken. I fear he’s now tainted goods, now, after spending too much time sucking up to Hugo Chavez and an unpleasant bigot when he should have been keeping his ear to the ground and hearing that the London suburbs were getting angsty. I’m not certain he’s learned those lessons.

But he achieved a great deal for London, creating a pair of mayoral boots that Boris Johnson has sometimes struggled to fill. The mayoralty’s only a decade old, but it feels as if it’s been with us forever. Tony Blair envisaged smooth business types running the capital – but in both Ken and Boris, it’s attracted free-thinking, cocky characters who are happy to ignore party lines and stand up for what they believe in. Politics aside, both men’s personalities make them good representatives of a city which doesn’t like being told what to do.

But therein lies the problem, my Labour friend. You lot spent years trying to tell London what to do. A decade ago, you rigged your own internal election for a mayoral candidate – and London rightly told you to get stuffed. (Poor old Frank Dobson – mind you, he never liked gingers like me anyway.) And, despite a campaign predicting disaster, Ken Livingstone made the right calls that the Labour Party didn’t – on the congestion charge, opposing the Iraq war, and on challenging the disastrous Tube part-privatisation imposed on London by Labour without our permission. I really don’t think that any other mayor would have helped London win the Olympics, either.

But what exactly has Labour done for London when you discount Ken’s contribution? Not a lot, apart from making life hard for us. That Tube part-privatisation has cost us billions – hey, next time Alistair Campbell does one of his funny fund-raising turns for you, perhaps you lot could start paying the cash back. Or maybe you could just say sorry.

And which party came up with the genius PFI that left our hospitals bankrupt? And how long did it take to allow the building of new council houses to ease our city’s housing shortage? When Ken was in charge, even in his second term, it felt like he was from another party to Labour. After all, when you listen to some of Labour’s northern MPs, you get the feeling the party as a whole doesn’t actually like us.

The genius of Ken Livingstone was that he was well aware that Labour – his own party – was part of the problem. He knew he could wield great power over the Labour government because he’d proved he was no patsy. He’s unafraid to take on the London boroughs – the uninspiring little fiefdoms which your party takes for granted – even wanting to cut them from 32 to five. Do you have the guts to say goodbye to cosy little boltholes like Greenwich, Newham and Hackney, and look afresh at how London is run? He was unafraid to take on the rail franchises the Labour party created. He was unafraid to take on the institutions and the interests that hold London back.

But who else in your party has the vision, passion, and love for London that Ken does? Nobody else of any clout has stepped forward.

Well, apart from Oona. Let’s check that voting record from her days as an MP again, shall we?

Voted strongly for introducing student top-up fees.
Voted against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.
Voted very strongly for the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.

Not exactly a free spirit in the vein of Ken – or Boris, for that matter. And on Radio 4 yesterday morning, when Ken was pointing out Boris’s lack of long-term vision for infrastructure projects “to stop London seizing up”, Oona said: “I think one of the biggest issues with London is that it could just be a much more fantastic place to live.” So, that’ll protect London for the years ahead, won’t it? Nobody’s interested. Only the Guardian turned up to her housing policy launch. She’s lost the press before she’s even begun.

The tragedy is, London needs a strong challenger against Boris, whose performance in the State of London debate yesterday was woeful. And Ken Livingstone needs a strong challenge against him. He’s not getting it. If Ken fails in 2012, who’ll carry the torch for Labour then? There’s no sign. Labour simply doesn’t get it.

Unless, you, as a London Labour Party member, can prove me wrong. You’ve already failed us by not even ensuring Ken Livingstone has a decent challenger in your own election. But your party needs people like me to give you at least their second choice votes. Please, show us you care. Because after four years of Boris bumbling around, London’s going to need it.

Lots of love, Darryl.


  1. Boris is mayor. The Tories are in government alongside the Lib Dems, who are busy cementing in place the exact opposite of almost all of their manifesto.

    I am a critical and left wing member of the Labour Party in London. but I still think the above means it’s time we collective lefties get our act together. That means it’s worth understanding that a Tory Govt and Mayor are worse than a markedly mediocre Labour govt and a left-wing mayor.

    Ken was good for London, I think, and I think he would be good again. I wish the party was a bit more like him elsewhere, but that’s an argument for Ken, not against him.

    WHo gets your first pref, the Greenspresumably?

  2. But why should the fact that we have a Tory mayor and government mean we have accept whatever crap Labour give us? Why hasn’t Labour come up with a credible challenger to Boris who isn’t Ken?

  3. The reason any party struggles to find credible candidates is because we have a hollowed out party system.

    It’s one of the great unsayables in politics, but as you must know from the Green Party there just aren’t enough people left to create a reasonable talent pool.

    This isn’t just a UK problem, nor is it exclusive to the centre-left, every industrialised country in the world has falling membership of political parties.

    There isn’t an easy answer to this, the institutions that used to create the opportunities for mass recruitment are all but gone, the structures that sustained us through the 20th Century aren’t fit for this one, and our media diet suggests that ‘they’re all the same’.

    As for this particular selection, whilst it might be nice to hope that we’d find our own Barack Obama holding forth at the back of a council chamber in Lewisham, I’m afraid that just doesn’t strike me as likely.

    In my view we’re reasonably lucky to have Ken, who for his faults (many, far to many) does at least have a vision for this city and probably has the experience to pick his way through the economic wastelands that the national government may well make over the next few years.

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